Olivieri Center, February 25th
“Forgotten Voices” Premiere with James Lee
"From My Heart"
Allison Charney, soprano
Kelly Hall-Tompkins and Hector Falcon, violins
Andrew Gonzalez, viola
Alexis Gerlach, cello
“Feels like a Warm Embrace”
My heart is full from the incredible experience of today, back at the Olivieri Center and the February Forgotten Voices premiere of James Lee’s From My Heart. Once again we entered from downstairs at our rehearsal to what looked and felt like an empty room. I know that it’s not the same dynamic as a concert hall, people are not in a shelter/drop in center because they want to be. So if the numbers are down, it’s a good thing, right? Still, I crave souls with whom to share this music that we have cultivated with such passion. And somehow once again, I turned my back to take care of various tasks and when I turned around again, our audience had magically appeared. Not as many as for the 100th concert, or so it appeared, but a nice full seating area of around 20. They were quiet and hopeful, eager and excited, some seemed spent and withered. All eyes were on us. And I feel in those moments, at the beginning of a Music Kitchen concert, that I have many, many pairs of eyes within myself and they are all taking in millions of bits of information to try to make this a positive experience for everyone- I see myself talking about the music, I see the listeners, do they feel engaged yet, I see the artists, do they need anything, I see the notes I’m about to play, I see the eyes looking at me.
I told our audience that I had the honor of first playing this Ravel quartet when I was in high school and that it’s one of my absolute favorite pieces of music. I also told them of its similarity to the idea of impressionist paintings, how there are many small strokes that, if you look at them too carefully, you can get one lost in the minutiae of the effect. But if you stand back, you see this big glorious picture. I handed out a few pictures of Monet paintings that I had printed out and then we dove into this sumptuous and beautiful piece. The audience was quiet and still and absorbing every drop of this ocean of sounds. Three quarters of the way through, our trance was temporarily broken by the rhythmic clicking of luggage wheels being rolled across the tiled floor. After our ears involuntarily followed the sound all the way across the still room to its conclusion, we reabsorbed back into the moment in time for the transcendent, suspended timelessness of the end of the first movement. We were even able to hold the air with our bows at the last note and feel the stillness completely. It took me a few moments to regain my conscious mind, and upon doing so, I asked our listeners their thoughts. A woman in the front broke the silence with a shake of her head, “I have no words...”. I can relate, I said, “I have no words either.” Unlike our last concert here, it did not yet give way to a lively verbal exchange. So I went on to introduce the loquacious second movement, with its lively pizzicato and river of undulating 16th notes. Afterwards I was so elated that the clients spoke of flashes of light. “Yes!” I said. “I find it so incredible that Ravel writes music you can SEE!” The ladies near the front bobbed their heads vigorously in agreement. I almost felt ‘my job here is done,’ and yet of course I was super excited that we had so much more to share with them!
It was then that I introduced the February song premiere. In my mind, I am thinking broadly of the enormity of the “Forgotten Voices” project and the reverence I feel in bringing it to the shelters each month. But perhaps it was missing the immediacy of here and now. So, this time, between my awkward explanation of the project and their disbelief in being the center of of it all, they blinked back to me over vacant eyes. I shortened and reframed my introduction, “The words of this next song are the words of a shelter client from a previous concert and I’ve invited composer James Lee to set it to music.” “Oh wow!” I then heard around the room. Allison came to join us at the front and shared with the audience the major theme of this song being gratitude and that that has inspired her to share her gratitude with all of us- gratitude to be here, to perform for the listeners and for this experience. It set a generous tone.
We performed the beautiful song; elements of the counterpoint with traded moving quintuplets made it an excellent pairing with the Ravel. Yet its harmonic language evoked for me a bit of the George Walker Lyric and a bit of Barber Adagio, as it arrived to a nostalgic and deeply emotional, slowly rising chordal line, giving a misty-eyed, uplifting resonance to the words, “We love you to the fullest...” The line ultimately gives way to Copland Appalachian Spring-esque major seven chord, with a more under the stars peaceful quality to it, evoked by the syncopated cello pizzicatos. Though drawing upon a number of American influences, the work is firmly Lee’s own voice. I introduced James to be recognized.
The reaction took my breath away. The young woman in the front was shining, lit from within. Her hand instinctively covered her heart as she spoke, “That piece was like a warm embrace.” She turned to James Lee and continued, “That piece made me feel safe.” And with that, she passed her light to James and to all of us. I was very happy that James could be here, all the way from Baltimore, to experience this. When I told the audience that James had come all the way from Baltimore just to be here, our audience was incredulous in their joy. Particularly in light of that inspiring and effusive outpouring, plus learning of James’ special trip, a few additional people were prepared to speak up. I asked our audience if they had ever met a composer before, “No!” many said, shaking their head, clearly excited to have the opportunity to do so now. Allison asked James what it was like to compose the piece. He talked about his process and later said that despite his other deadlines he focused solely on this work while he was writing it. The listeners were impressed and honored. Then finally our audience, inspired, emboldened, or both, came to life and our lively exchange ensued. The questions flowed: Do you write for specific artists, how do you know when a piece is finished, how do you start? James shared with them some of his competing responsibilities with teaching his course schedule, but that once he opened his mind to beginning a work, the notes took on a life and demands of their own until they had all been accounted for. In my limited experience with arranging and composing, I felt a similar gravitational pull and could relate completely.
When the natural ebb to this wonderful dialogue occurred, we returned to the last movement of the Ravel to conclude our program. I had come prepared with another image. While other Monet paintings were selected to give an image to the dulcet tones of the impressionist era, this fiery red sunset entitled “Venice Twilight,” triggered by my synesthesia association of A, was the perfect image to evoke the movement. The insistently populated strokes took on a new intensity in this color palette, just as the 4th movement’s relentless 5/8 16th note themes. It was a moving train of sound and color and this image prepared the listeners perfectly to be swept up for a thrilling ride.
At the end of the performance we stood to receive the enthusiastic applause. We sat down again to field questions, which I broke the ice with my usual joke to put a colleague on the spot, “Any questions? Anything at all you want to know about Hector’s personal life!” Hector beamed in surprised laughter, along with our audience, putting them even more at ease. With that flowed more questions. But the one which stood out for the bridge that it created, was someone wanted to know how we each came to playing our instruments. For Alexis it was already in the family, Hector was chosen for him at school, Andrew was in the public school like me. Then I shared my story of church and cartoon exposure, catalyzed by a trip to hear the local orchestra, me hanging over the balcony and on every note. When I finished, the same light-filled speaker spoke up again, “woman, if you are not my mirror then I don’t know what is. I am hanging on your every note right now...you see this pen I’m holding?” She lifted a fat Sharpie horizontally up in the air. She continued, “I walk around with this in my hand pretending it’s a bow. I just want to play the violin so badly.” As I often do in this setting, I and we all encouraged her to follow her dream. But she wasn’t finished with her powerful statements fulfilling part of my dream for this series. She stood, saying, “I have to stand up for this- I will remember this day, you musicians and this concert for the rest of my life. This has changed my life forever. I will never forget this day.” Again, she took my breath away. One hopes these concerts will have a lasting impact, and many times we get to experience a glimpse into that new doorway. But here the door was flung wide open in real time. Because we were here.
After the concert and questions were over and we took our usual group photo, Gracie came over to hug each one of us and talk with me more at length. Her bright spirit was infectious. I wondered as I looked into her bright and joyful eyes what was her story, but I dared not diminish this moment in any way by asking. She still had her pen in hand and asked me to help her hold it the right way as if it were a bow. So there at the drop-in center I gave her a mini lesson using the pen. She was delighted. She told me that in grade school she wanted more than anything to be in the orchestra but that she was pushed into sports instead. I wondered by whom. She was also a very talented artist and showed us a captivating digital drawing that she had rendered during our performance, elegant sound holes of a violin gently superimposed over a woman’s forearm. I suggested that she contact the Noel Pointer Foundation or the Harlem School of the Arts. I knew that Noel Pointer had helped another Music Kitchen client I referred very generously in the past and I was hoping they might do so again. I was also not sure how serious was the young client’s intent, plus I had not even had a chance to give her the foundation name in writing. I was overjoyed to hear from the CEO Chinita Pointer the very next day that Gracie had walked into her office that morning.
In planning this project, I have wondered what effect Forgotten Voices would have on clients comment writing in real time. Perhaps the existence of only one card from today’s concert is my answer, at least for today. As much as they feel honored and affirmed that someone’s sentiments and memories are honored with a song, they are too reluctant to come forward and let it be theirs. January’s concert was perhaps the exact opposite. It shows me that protecting the writers’ anonymity is the right median approach. Today we celebrate instead an outpouring of sentiments that came forth in living color. Many thanks once again to Lillian Rountree and Urban Pathways for facilitating and hosting today’s concert.
One card from a listener:
1) Have you heard he King Crimson album islands? Check it out!li>
2) Have you ever thought about releasing any of your concerts? If not, think about it!
Thank you for your support of Music Kitchen – Food for the Soul!